Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency
by Charles Rappleye.
Simon and Schuster, 2016.
Hardcover, 551 pages, $32.50.

The title and subtitle of this book do—and do not—accurately advertise what it contains. Something a good deal less than a full biography of Herbert Hoover, the book is a detailed study of the Hoover presidency. At the same time, it is something less than a study of the ordeal of the presidency. What it is instead is an accounting of the ordeal that was Mr. Hoover’s presidency.

No doubt the subtitle is a play on ex-president Hoover’s own book dealing with the last Democrat to precede him in that office.That would be Woodrow Wilson, whose administration benefited from Hoover’s wartime service. Whether organizing relief abroad or food distribution at home, Hoover performed admirably. This work was difficult, but it was never an ordeal. Wilson’s presidency may well have been a different story. At least Hoover thought so, as he titled his book The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson.

If Wilson’s presidency was an ordeal, it was indistinguishable from the Great War and his failed attempt to secure a peace settlement that would have delivered on his rationale for an American crusade to “make the world safe for democracy,” as well as making sure, via a League of Nations, that this war would prove to be the war to end all wars.

Good Wilsonian that he was, Hoover had similar hopes. But there would be no ordeal until his own presidency was at hand—and then would almost immediately be consumed by the stock market crash of October, 1929, and the Great Depression that followed. While both no doubt contributed to Hoover’s ordeal, his general demeanor and approach to the office were factors as well. In fact, one suspects that a Hoover presidency, minus either a crash or a depression, would still have proved to be an ordeal for this president.

And no wonder. Life had long been a trial for this orphaned son of Quaker parents and striving son of the Midwest and West. True, he did have great success as a mining engineer and executive, and a strong case can be made that the Hoover presidency was the only blot on a charmed and stunningly successful adult life. A Stanford graduate, Hoover was a multi-millionaire by the age of forty. After his wartime service in the Wilson administration, Hoover was an innovative Commerce Secretary under Presidents Harding and Coolidge.

In the eyes of the latter, Hoover was the “Boy Wonder.” And Coolidge was not issuing a compliment when he uttered those two words. Nonetheless, having inherited Hoover as Commerce Secretary, Coolidge kept him on. And, having announced his decision not to run in 1928, the president expected that Hoover would be his likely successor.

Four years later Hoover would leave the White House, defeated and disgraced. But a long and largely successful ex-presidency awaited him. Jimmy Carter has now bested him in years of service in this exclusive club (36 to 32 and counting). He may even have passed Hoover in the number of books authored by a former president. But Hoover as elder statesman easily bests Carter.

All this is by way of prelude to the ordeal that was the Hoover presidency. Others have chronicled the fullness of Hoover’s life and contributions. But no one has examined his presidency with the care and detail of Rappleye. This is a book that deserves a much wider audience than it is likely to get. Then again, since we are still in the early days of the only other businessman-as-president, some may be tempted to turn to this book in search of historical parallels.

And a few parallels there are. Like Donald Trump, Herbert Hoover had never run for elective office prior to his 1928 run for the White House. Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Hoover was essentially a man without a party prior to that run. Like Trump, Hoover was both a successful businessman and someone known to exhibit progressive instincts, while supporting what then passed for progressive policies.

At the same time, there are important differences, not the least of which are the following: Donald Trump ran and won as a populist. Herbert Hoover was not and did not. Prior to 1928 Hoover had a lengthy record of accomplished public service. Trump has neither. To be sure, Rappleye conceived this book well before anyone, including Trump himself, could have imagined that there would ever be a Trump presidency. But if his efforts wind up winning him a wider readership because of our current president, so be it. This book deserves to be read, and read on its merits.

If Rappleye has a goal with this book, it is to explain, not indict. The picture of Hoover that emerges here is one of a president who is willing to use the levers of the federal government to help solve economic problems, but who at the same time is forever concerned that too much federal government power in action would fundamentally—and negatively—transform America.

As a result, Hoover took small steps toward greater federal government involvement in the economy, via public works programs and such vehicles as the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. He also engaged in his share of private jawboning. But no step that he took, public or private, led to anything approaching a sustained revitalization of the American economy.

Was there a step or action that Hoover might have taken—and didn’t? Rappleye would say no, but he does contend that Hoover committed a “great error” by “fighting to the last” in defense of the gold standard. Still, it is his verdict that Hoover does not deserve the verdict that “New Deal intellectuals” leveled at him, namely nothing less than condemnation and complete blame for the Great Depression. By Rappleye’s estimation, Hoover’s greatest failing was less a matter of policy than personality. To put it bluntly, Hoover failed to connect with the American people. The heart of the problem, to borrow from William Allen White, was that the man was “constitutionally gloomy.”

In some respects Hoover was a nineteenth-century man who found himself occupying an office that was in the process of being transformed from its eighteenth-century origins into what would become Arthur Schlesinger’s “imperial presidency” of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. On second thought, “found himself” isn’t quite right. As Rappleye makes clear, Hoover set about working and organizing to be Coolidge’s successor almost from the moment that the latter announced his decision not to run in 1928. Hoover also did what he took to be his best to win re-election in1932. And then he took his overwhelming defeat at the hands of Franklin Roosevelt very seriously—and dejectedly—indeed.

Progressive that he partially was, Hoover wanted to wield power. Nineteenth-century man that he also was, he believed there were severe limits to that power, both in terms of the presidency itself and in terms of the reach of the federal government. In Rappleye’s accounting there was always a war of sorts raging between the two Hoovers.

The result was less a half-hearted attempt to solve the dilemma of the Great Depression than it was an effort that fell somewhere between the proverbial two stools. In retrospect, Hoover might have been better advised to spend more time listening to his nineteenth-century self.

Counterfactual history is by definition “iffy” history. But it’s reasonable to speculate about what might have happened if Hoover had taken a page from Warren Harding, whose response to the post-World War I economic collapse was essentially to stand aside and let things sort themselves out. Had Hoover tried the same approach following the October, 1929, crash, Rappleye would have found himself writing a very different book—or perhaps no book at all. Furthermore, the results of the 1932 presidential election might also have been very different.

Then again, a “constitutionally gloomy” Hoover might well have gone down to defeat in 1932 no matter what. But did Hoover have to lose to a full-throated progressive, a progressive on steroids, and a progressive who was anything but a “gloomy Gus”? After all, the Democratic Party prior to FDR was not just the party of Wilson and Bryan, but the party of Grover Cleveland, John W. Davis, and Al Smith, whose commitment to progressivism was much closer to that of Hoover than to Roosevelt.

We also know that the New Deal, or progressivism on steroids, did not end the Great Depression.World War II did that. How much longer would bad times have continued without a major war? Once again, we’re veering into “iffy” history. What we do know is that President Hoover was not at all anxious to steer the country toward war during his time in office. By Rappleye’s estimation Hoover was the “greatest pacifist” ever to serve as president, although he certainly had his opportunities to spurn that title. This was especially the case in the aftermath of Japan’s annexation of Manchuria. But he passed. As president, Hoover would not take the United States to war in the name of extricating the country from its economic woes.

We also know that Hoover’s failure as president paved the way for FDR and a leftward lurch the likes of which the country had never experienced. Should that be a concern today? After all, our only other politically-inexperienced-businessman-as-president currently occupies the office. Once again, the question is a reasonable one to ask, even if no solid answers are possible. In the meantime, spending time with this book and the travails of Hoover as president offers lessons for all of us, as we wonder where things are headed today.  

John C. Chalberg writes from Minnesota.